The Ministry of Mothering
Knowing that we would be hearing from the author of this week’s book while in Oxford made me especially interested in Emma Percy’s book, What Clergy Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing. Once I dove in I appreciated it even more, mostly because she capitalized on the metaphor of mothering in reference to the role of pastors and priests (I’m sure you’re not surprised :-). Percy explains why, “Mothering is associated with a way of being in charge that is characterized by love, care and a desire for individuals to flourish. It connects to ideas about home, the place in which we are fed and nurtured, from which we can leave to play our part in the world and to which we can return when the world is a confusing and exhausting place. I acknowledge that not all mothering lives up to this ideal, yet I maintain that this image provides rich resources to help us reflect afresh on the role of a parish priest.” When people have suggested that she eliminate the feminine gender and use the gender-neutral term parenting instead of mothering, she explains why this doesn’t work for her. “However, ‘parenting’ does not yet convey the warmth of relationship and ordinariness of ‘mothering’ and it lacks the rich traditional resonances. More importantly, its gender-neutrality hides the reality that the care of children and homemaking are undervalued because associated with women. And the undervaluing of this caring plays a vital part in the undervaluing in so many aspects of care beyond the home.” I love how she defends her use of the mothering metaphor and her highlighting its importance in light of the devaluing of women was brilliant. Sadly, this lack of value for the feminine in the church is extremely common, and we all suffer for its absence. I also loved how she reminded us that Paul used the same mothering imagery when writing to the community of believers in Thessalonica.
Another concept in the book I enjoyed was her equating the role of pastors and priests to being the ones whose job is to “keep the fridge full and provide lifts when necessary from A to B.” What a classic picture of my mom, and I’m sure many others. She always had the fridge stocked with all my favorite foods and was constantly running me all over town, often referring to herself as our personal taxi driver. Percy explains why she included this chapter and added to the mothering metaphor. “What does it mean to help to create and maintain a spiritual home where people feel able to feed themselves as well as be fed? I will suggest that this housekeeping role is the area of ministry which can appropriately use the terminology of servant. It is, of course, God who is feeding and nurturing all of us in our faith. Yet the parish priest has an important role in ensuring that the people in her care can access the sustenance from God which they need. She plays a key role in maintaining the spaces, providing the wherewithal for teaching and worship and creating an atmosphere in which the regulars feel at home and the visitors feel welcome.” I love this picture she describes and how important it is for church leaders to provide a safe, cozy place for people to be fed, feed themselves, and feed and care for others. I feel like we have corporatized the church so much and overemphasized the need for pastors to be excellent administrators that we have lost this “mothering” aspect of shepherding a congregation. This is one of the biggest reasons why I think it is so important to advocate for more women to be involved with church leadership at every level. We need their feminine perspective and unique gifts to more effectively care for our parishioners and visitors.
The last concept of the book I want to highlight is Percy’s idea of pastors and priests learning to be “good enough.” She starts the chapter by emphasizing the incredible honor, responsibility, and expectations of ordained ministry. She says, “To be ordained is a privilege. There is an understanding that God has called an individual to this role and blessed that person for it. Within the Church it is recognized as a, if not the, vocation. It is, as I have already argued, not simply a profession but an occupation which takes over the entirety of a person’s life. It therefore comes with a mass of expectations. As a professional Christian, a priest is assumed to be spiritually mature and confident in her faith. She is expected to behave in authentically Christian ways exhibiting love, care and concern for others, patience, forbearance and a lack of worldly ambition. It is an occupation which seems to have simultaneously a high and low status.” I have always said; pastoral ministry is one of the most demanding professions on the planet. We expect pastors to be everything to everyone and live a perfect life on top of it all, which is why we are always so shocked when they fall. So many pastors need to hear the message of being good enough. She explains, “Seeking to be good enough is not settling for mediocrity. Being good enough acknowledges the internal conflicts present in a role that is about people and caring for people, in all the complexity of their competing needs. Being good enough is what enables others to grow and mature, providing enough security without smothering them.” I appreciated how she explained that being good enough doesn’t mean we can’t strive for excellence, which I feel is one of the ways we can honor God in our service. At the end of the day, it is our character and values that matter most. Percy said it well…“Developing the ability to be good enough in either ministry or mothering means developing virtues rather than following rules.” Breaking the rules society tends to place on us can be incredibly freeing, and usually more emotionally healthy.
I celebrate all the mothers in our lives and advocate for us to be more like them and to continue to invite more of them to the leadership table.
 Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, (SPCK, Kindle Edition), 17.
 Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, (SPCK, Kindle Edition), 127.
7 responses to “The Ministry of Mothering”
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I too am looking forward to meeting Emma Percy, especially after reading this book. What a kind heart and caring soul she must have. What pastor wouldn’t appreciate what she wrote, right?
Loved hearing about your mom. Thanks for that glimpse.
Finally, my takeaway from the book matched yours, regarding pastors being “good enough”. Had not thought of it in this way until she unpackaged that for me. What a great lesson to learn, and thank you for the reminder thru your good Blog.
Thanks Jay for the kind words and yes, my mom was another amazing woman who mothered well. Look forward to meeting Emma as well, just loved her mothering heart and encouragement for pastors to be enough. Glad you enjoyed the book as well. Blessings friend.
I’m glad to hear we will meet Priest Percy. I look forward to hearing from her in person.
I think her use of the feminine maternal metaphor works and has good association with Christ holding us in His arms, covering us with His divine protection to fend off the schemes of principalities and powers.
I too enjoyed the “being good enough” theme that Percy used in her book. Despite the double standards Percy must live under from the 1993 Act of Synod she is “good enough” and does a masterful job promoting women to join the Catholic leadership table.
Thanks for your comments Mike. I’m glad you enjoyed the book as well and I agree with the idea of a mother protecting her kids is exactly how God protects us from the evil one. I’m sad we have so many double standards for men and women in this country and around the world and I hope us men can be a voice to women letting them know they are good enough. Blessings friend.
Yes. The “good enough” idea was critical. Isn’t that picture of grace for us all, living life in the now and the not yet.
IS this a work you will be able to use in your dissertation?
This book was so powerful in its use of the Mothering metaphor and as you stated helps, at least a little, in restoring some important feminine aspects to faith and ministry. As I mentioned in my own post, I wish I had heard and understood this metaphor years ago as it might have saved some unnecessary heartache and stress.
I wonder how this metaphor helps you in your ministry as one that is not strictly clergy but still necessary for the balanced functioning of the Church.
Great post, Jake!
When I first delved into the text, I was curious why she didn’t use the term parenting to describe ministry; however, after reading further and understand her reasoning, I grew to appreciate her choice of words.
Mothering is still a very fluid concept and defined differently based on personality, culture, and generation. I’ve found more men are nurturing compared to women. Most of my male friends are ENFJs or ENFPs and most of my female friends are INTJs or ENTJs. This makes for a very diversified group.
You mention, “This is one of the biggest reasons why I think it is so important to advocate for more women to be involved with church leadership at every level. We need their feminine perspective and unique gifts to more effectively care for our parishioners and visitors.” I love this and I love your pursuit for gender equality within the church! However, what about women who don’t fit the “gender expectations” of most women? Where do they fit into leadership within the church? Some churches are opening their doors to women, but they still expect them to fit nurturing and supportive roles. How do clergy find their fit if they don’t find their voice or purpose in “mothering”?